Choosing causes re Flynn for Oregon

Andrea Salinas just beat EA candidate Carrick Flynn in the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 6th congressional district. She got about 38% and he got about 19% of the vote. This outcome was (very) disappointing but expected.

Individual EAs donated some $900K (my estimate) to Carrick’s campaign, presumably mostly because they thought it was highly effective in expectation. Several prominent EAs publicly donated the maximum amount, and the general feeling on this forum (and elsewhere, like twitter) was “I . . . recommend this highly to people looking for impactful individual donations” (source). In retrospect, this investment didn’t pay off. But independent of this particular election, what can we learn about prioritizing donations?

I wouldn’t want everyone to spend forever researching donations of a few thousand dollars. But when the community is donating on the scale of $100K or more, particularly in novel ways, and particularly when many donors are driven by prominent EAs’ enthusiasm, we should really have reason to believe that the intervention is effective. Before donating and encourage others to donate, we should share reason to believe that the intervention has a reasonable probability of success, rather than just the promise of great outcomes if it does succeed. I almost think it’s irresponsible for community leaders to say things like “I donated $5800 and recommend this highly to people looking for impactful individual donations” without (1) pointing to at least a back-of-the-envelope reason to believe that marginal donations have a reasonable probability of improving the outcome and (2) checking to make sure at least a couple people with relevant subject knowledge agree. Whether donating is effective depends not just on whether electing Carrick would be good, but also on how effective donations are, and I saw little discussion in the community of expected value of marginal dollars. I would guess that relatively few EAs donating to Carrick’s campaign had either a good understanding of elections that told them that donating was highly effective or meta-level justification such as the opinion of an independent person with relevant knowledge. Again setting aside this specific campaign, I think we should beware of bandwagoning before perceiving much reason to believe that an intervention is likely to succeed.

Also, I think we should be particularly cautious around causes that feel tribal-y. I noticed that a couple objectively bad pro-Carrick election takes got highly upvoted in the endorsement comments, while some objectively good Carrick-skeptical election takes and some objectively reasonable meta-level comments got downvoted. We should be good enough at scout mindset to welcome informed criticism without seeing it as an attack on our values; I’m not saying that went wrong here, but the forum votes suggest it’s possible. In such situations, we should be particularly encouraging of counterevidence (see Habryka’s comment). It should be easy to disagree with the community without it feeling hard, much less feeling like you might risk social status. Regardless of the actual consequences of expressing dissent, a reasonable commenter thought it was “obvious” that dissent would entail “severe” consequences, so others likely had similar fears.

I happen to think that donating to Carrick’s campaign was totally reasonable, as an effective intervention, but I fear that the community’s decision-making process wasn’t very grounded in donations’ probability of tipping the election, so I’m concerned that future causes might get support despite being predictably ineffective. Anyway, I’m excited to see Carrick’s future research and policy work.

Edit: this post is getting several downvotes and strong-downvotes, so I just want to emphasize that I’m excited to hear particular disagreements you have or what you think I got wrong. Indeed, this post is kind of about how we should share disagreement more!

Edit 2: now there’s some relevant criticism, thank you!